π Planet
How to reduce carbon emissions of the digital sector

“99% of a smartphone’s carbon footprint is related to its production”

Sophy Caulier, Independant journalist
On September 22nd, 2021 |
3 mins reading time
“99% of a smartphone’s carbon footprint is related to its production”
Hugues Ferreboeuf
Hugues Ferreboeuf
Project Director at The Shift Project and Co-founder of Virtus Management
Key takeaways
  • In the digital sector, 45% of energy consumption is due to production of equipment and 55% to its use.
  • Think tank, The Shift Project, has shown that improving the energy efficiency ratio of equipment is not enough to compensate for the increase in digital use.
  • Video downloads now account for 65-70% of global data flows and are responsible for 20% of the sector’s GHG emissions.
  • Marketing and technological techniques (‘addictive design’) of streaming providers such as Netflix encourage viewers to consume more.
  • For Hugues Ferreboeuf, we need to change our economic model and digital resources should be considered as scarce resources.

You led the work­ing group of think tank The Shift Project which pub­lished a report in 2018 enti­tled “For dig­i­tal sobri­ety”. What did you find then?

Hugues Fer­re­boeuf. The aim was to analyse the evo­lu­tion of the envi­ron­men­tal foot­print of the dig­i­tal sec­tor1. We found that 45% of the sector’s ener­gy con­sump­tion is due to pro­duc­tion of equip­ment and 55% to its use. We iden­ti­fied two dynam­ics at work. On the one hand, a tech­no­log­i­cal dynam­ic was pro­vid­ing sig­nif­i­cant ener­gy effi­cien­cy gains with each new gen­er­a­tion of equip­ment – as such, it was pos­si­ble to do more with the same ener­gy con­sump­tion. On the oth­er hand, how­ev­er, we observed an explo­sion in use. We also showed that improve­ments in ener­gy effi­cien­cy ratio of equip­ment is not enough to com­pen­sate for the increase in use. In oth­er words, for dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy to be ener­gy effi­cient, to reduce its envi­ron­men­tal foot­print, we must inevitably look at how to lim­it the devel­op­ment of cer­tain uses that are not very vir­tu­ous in envi­ron­men­tal terms, par­tic­u­lar­ly video!

© The Shift Project, Dis­tri­b­u­tion of the glob­al dig­i­tal car­bon foot­print by item in 2019. Adapt­ed from2

Video now accounts for 65–70% of glob­al data flows and, with more than 300 mil­lion tonnes of CO2 emit­ted per year, it is respon­si­ble for 20% of green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions in the IT sec­tor. Above all, less than 10% of the uses are pro­fes­sion­al, such as video­con­fer­enc­ing or telemed­i­cine. The rest is divid­ed between view­ing video in the form of films, porn, music clips, or those lit­tle videos that are auto­mat­i­cal­ly trig­gered when you vis­it a site. These fig­ures led us to pub­lish a spe­cif­ic report in 20193 in which we call for a reduc­tion in the weight and use of leisure video, which requires some form of reg­u­la­tion and there­fore soci­etal debate.

How can we lim­it or curb usage?

It’s com­pli­cat­ed! The prob­lem is that uses do not replace each oth­er, they add up. The switch from DVD to stream­ing, for exam­ple, has result­ed in an increase in screen time. If emis­sions are increas­ing every year, it is because we are con­sum­ing more. And if we are con­sum­ing more, it is because the busi­ness mod­els of the sup­pli­ers, their mar­ket­ing and tech­no­log­i­cal tech­niques encour­age us to con­sume more. Sim­ple process­es such as auto­mat­ic start-up of the next episode in a series make us stay in front of our screens. This is called ‘addic­tive design’. Anoth­er aspect is that the cost of sub­scrip­tion, Net­flix for exam­ple, reduces the mar­gin­al cost of sub­scrip­tion for the user – that means the more you con­sume the cheap­er it is. But once we are aware of the impacts of our con­sump­tion, our inac­tion becomes rep­re­hen­si­ble. It is not just a ques­tion of indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­i­ty: we need to change our eco­nom­ic model.

Can improve­ments and advances in tech­nol­o­gy help to reduce ener­gy consumption?

Yes, but this will not be enough to absorb the increase in usage. More­over, some tech­nolo­gies are reach­ing their phys­i­cal lim­its. In fact, we are like­ly to see a slow­down in ener­gy effi­cien­cy gains over the next few years. We have used this analy­sis, which takes into account indi­vid­ual prac­tices and the struc­tur­ing of sup­ply, in a report pub­lished in Octo­ber 2020, enti­tled “Deploy­ing dig­i­tal sobri­ety”4. The growth of dig­i­tal uses is a sys­temic phe­nom­e­non in which sup­ply and demand play a role, but also the polit­i­cal and reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work. To solve a sys­temic prob­lem, we need a sys­temic solu­tion, we need to act on the dif­fer­ent vec­tors that lead to this “over­growth”. In this report, we pub­lished a sort of method­olog­i­cal ref­er­ence frame­work for com­pa­nies in the broad sense to help them inte­grate the prin­ci­ples of dig­i­tal sobri­ety into every­thing that makes up their infor­ma­tion sys­tem. Now that dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy is every­where, com­pa­nies can­not lim­it them­selves to a tech­no­log­i­cal approach to the issue of sobri­ety. It is becom­ing a con­cern for top-lev­el man­age­ment which must be inte­grat­ed into a company’s strategy.

In con­crete terms, how can we reduce our envi­ron­men­tal foot­print linked to dig­i­tal technology?

First, by not chang­ing smart­phones so often! In France, peo­ple change their device on aver­age every 20 months. What you need to know is that 99% of the car­bon foot­print of a smart­phone is linked to its pro­duc­tion and trans­port to France. Else­where in the world, this share is 90% on aver­age. The dif­fer­ence is that elec­tric­i­ty is very low car­bon in France… Sec­ond­ly, we must avoid mul­ti­ply­ing gad­gets, acces­sories, and addi­tion­al equip­ment. The num­ber of con­nect­ed objects, screens, devices, etc. per per­son in the Unit­ed States is expect­ed to rise from 13 today to 35 objects in 2030. And what we see is that the growth is strongest where there is already a pletho­ra of equip­ment, name­ly in North Amer­i­ca, West­ern Europe and Japan. In oth­er words, 70 bil­lion dig­i­tal objects will be pro­duced between now and 2030, objects that will con­sume ener­gy to func­tion but also to be man­u­fac­tured. Final­ly, we must favour fixed uses over mobile uses. If you watch Net­flix, do it from home with your fibre-optic con­nec­tion rather than 5G in the metro. Bet­ter still, go spend an hour in the for­est instead of watch­ing Net­flix for hours!

Dig­i­tal resources should now be con­sid­ered as scarce resources, which they have not been for a long time. Before, when com­put­ing pow­er was lim­it­ed, soft­ware was writ­ten care­ful­ly to lim­it the need for com­put­ing. Let’s redis­cov­er this sobriety.